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Roundtable discussion: Steering company and career in a new direction

Posted By Robert Wray, Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Marilyn Alexander (Alexander & Friedman LLC/Strategic Planning and Communications and Board and Audit Committee Member, Tutor-Perini Corporation)
M. Ann Harlan (Former Vice President, General Counsel, The J.M. Smucker Company)
Lucinda Baier (Director, Bon-Ton Stores Inc. and Chief Financial Officer, Central Parking System)
Anne Lim O'Brien (Partner, Consumer Markets and CEO/Board Practices, Heidrick & Struggles)

After a comical panel introduction by Maureen McGurl (she poked her eye yesterday and couldn't find the presentation clicker on the podium), we plunged right into discussions on women and board service.

It all comes back to the basic "building" blocks: Build your reputation, build your career, build your network. There are more opportunities in the private sector, which is a great place to start. Anne Lim O'Brien suggests you start by making a note to your CEO and putting it into your career plan, then reaching out to a colleague you trust and figuring out how you get there. 

"Don't be shy about telling people you want to be on the board," M. Ann Harlan says.

"Women have earned their place in the board room," O'Brien says, "just not fast enough... When there are three women, rather than just one, confidence is up and it changes how your voice comes across."

The good companies have really identified what they want, what expertise they're looking for. "But it will be someone who is collaborative," Baier says. "How does this person handle hardship? Do we want to be in the trenches with this person?" The board needs to operate very collaboratively, so teamwork is important. "It's critical to know that each member is going to be respectful," she says. 

"Boards are interested in international expertise," Marylin Alexander says. "I think that's important for this group to know."

Executives also need to look at how they develop their relationships and not just establish themselves as strategic thinkers but learn how to think strategically about themselves--even four or five years out--on how to get on the board.

"It might be a 12-month process from the time you begin trying to the time you actually are considered," says Harlan. And then you gain a seat, all of which calls for a definite commitment to the investment of time. Although, from the seats these women are sitting in, it's well worth it.

The main pool of advice these women have for board member-hopefuls: Don't be discouraged; there are a lot of pathways to the board. But it does take time. And there are people who want to help you achieve it. You've got to know what you want, reach out for help and do the work that aligns you with the type of reputation you'll need to recommend you to your very own seat.

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